Tasveer Ghar: A Digital Archive of South Asian Popular Visual Culture

The Commodity Image in the (Post) Colony

In contemporary advertising, status differences are usually bridged by depicting consumer desire. Even if it is never likely to be fulfilled, the portrayal of desire brings human differences onto a terrain of potential negotiation. By contrast, in this ad, the workers’ lack of visible desire for a product claimed to be desirable represents an inaccessible difference. More precisely, the assumed viewer may replicate the workers’ indifference to the good with an attitude of indifference towards the workers.

The capitalist economy is typically seen as a modernizing agency that creates a level playing field, as it were, as it absorbs traditional societies in its wake.7  But here we have an image produced and circulated alongside the goods it advertises, portraying a non-fungible form of inequality between the persons shown in the image and its intended viewers.

If commodification is at the heart of the forces colonizing the world, images have been understood as being part of that process. The logic of capital favors exchange value over use value, and accumulation for its own sake. Images, it has been argued, seduce us into “the society of the spectacle,” extending commodity fetishism to habits of perception.8 

But images also bear impressions of the world, and thus disclose more than the functions of exchange for which they are employed. They can therefore disclose the heterogeneity elsewhere unacknowledged or covered over.9  The advertisement for Safe Dyes, I suggest, draws on images of caste and class inequality for a clientele who would have been largely savarna, or twice-born. Even without an explicitly religious signifier, therefore, it derives from and signals a world where ‘goodness’ is a value confirming rather than challenging the caste hierarchy.

There are of course markedly competing conceptions of good and bad in the colonial context; colonial rule is assumed to be a secular good, for example, by the two advertisements in Figures 3 and 4, in contrast to the ritual forms of goodness assumed in the ads shown in Figures 1 and 2. In the ad for the Lily Biscuit Co. (Fig. 03), an aeroplane has skywritten the words “The Pride of India” – referring to Quality Biscuits from Lily. “India,” here, unlike the use of the name today, refers to the English, who both ruled and represented the country.10

“India” is symbolized in the white child frolicking in a shower of biscuits dropping from above. The casual pleasures of everyday life are visually linked here to technological might, to say nothing of culinary excellence, and perhaps implicitly to the power that commanded such skills and resources. With an airplane, a white infant girl and the word Lily, which in English is a flower symbolizing innocence and purity, “The Pride of India” involves nothing from the period that we would necessarily think of as Indian. The ad was published in 1937 (the picture of the aircraft shows a 1930s long-distance commercial sea-boat), when the Indian National Congress had formed provincial governments, and begun planning for political independence. Arguably, at this time, Indian pride pertained to swadeshi rather than to English tea biscuits dropping from the sky.11  What the ad omits for the purposes of circulating amidst a specific clientele, offers its own illumination of the character of this constituency, which is assumed not to be significant.

In the ad reproduced here as Figure 04, only Indians are visible, by contrast. Promoting “all kinds of cloth for defenders and defended,” from the Buckingham & Carnatic Mills, the image shows a bearded and turbaned cavalryman leading a group of lancers as they ride past a crowd in native costume, standing in front of a temple.

The picture is undated, but the text mentions khaki, for which B&C Mills had the largest dyeing plant in the world at the turn of the 20th C., and which it supplied to the military.12  The ad may have been designed to evoke and justify the foreign wars for which Indian recruits were sought. Just as the production of cloth was a universal good, similarly the defense of empire too was in the natives’ interest. European violence against Indians between 1918-21 was widely publicized when the Madras Labour Union went on strike at the B&C Mills. It is possible that the ad’s claim about the legitimate use of force is made against more disquieting accounts circulating about the company after this time.13  Indians dominate the picture, but the claim that the army is used for their defense would presumably need to be made only against doubts about just such a fact. Nationalist images of the army tend to invoke pride, not arguments about its utility. The ad therefore appears to defend British rule explicitly, whereas the previous image was more implicit in this regard.

Religion and Popular Visuality: From the Colonial to the National
The onset of nationalism could not leave the strength of these images undisturbed. The shift from colonialism to nationalism is a change from an exclusive to a more inclusive form of power, from the status of subjecthood to that of the aspiration towards some sense of citizenship, and to a moral universe in which indigenous conceptions of the good could no longer be ruled out or dismissed in the same way.

Alongside this shift, the copious use of mythological imagery by multinationals in product advertising disappears over time. In other words, while initially global capitalism demonstrates its facility in the vernacular through the forms of advertising it sponsors, after independence, multinationals begin to observe the secular pieties of official nationalism. Now, this began to change in the late 1980s and onward, as the onset of national television and the growth of Hindu nationalism combined to make mythological imagery available for securing nation-wide constituencies and consumers.14  But it is interesting to note that multinationals appear on both side of the divide between elite and vernacular domains, and that their presence was mediated by commodity images, which were frequently religious, and Hindu. If the uses of these images, attached to everyday objects sold in bazaars, or hung in Indians’ homes as calendars, were seen to be sacrilegious, such opposition was relatively minor and did not restrict their circulation.15  Religious non-interference on the part of the government was therefore differently reflected in the colonial and in the postcolonial economy, if we trace the story through the commodity-image. 


The power of commodity images is thus clearly sensitive to issues of governing ideology, as much as to questions of domain and medium. The circulation of images in new domains and through new technological modalities alters their efficacy, and influences the resistance (or lack thereof) that they arouse. Thus the advent of independence and of an official policy of secularism accompanied the withdrawal of mythological imagery from advertisements for national and multinational companies, and signaled a loss of status for such imagery, although just how rapidly this occurred remains to be examined. The onset of broadcasting systematically oriented to the devotional sentiments of the Hindu community in the 1980s altered this situation however, and opened the way for a change in aesthetic standards and for returning Hindu themes and symbols to an up-market status, although class distinctions in the way Hinduness was communicated could not suddenly become irrelevant, of course (Fig. 05).16

More broadly, these images are not monovalent, since they index different forms of power at the same time. Rather than understanding religious and secular power as successive or mutually exclusive, and as somehow external to their modes of mediation, I suggest we can think of the images as both indexing and helping to constitute one or more forms of political theology. These involve extra-rational modes of legitimation that are enabled by extant religious symbolism.17  Inquiring into the political theology of these images points to the reliance of a modern economy on religious imagery. Communicating in a demotic idiom and with popular audiences, it indicates as well, the heterogeneous character of modern power.18  Indeed different political theologies, colonial, national, mythological, and technological, can be glimpsed across these images, providing commentaries on the times they were made for. Thus, some of the images here suggest a reliance on devotional forms of authority in the sale of snuff, textiles, tobacco and other goods and services. The expansion of commodity consumption is often assumed to have a secularizing influence. But these communiqués from the domestic market, vernacular in their imagery if not in their script, suggest a more complex story.19  (e.g., see Figures 08-13).

7 In this connection, see Karl Marx, Grundrisse: Foundations of the Critique of Political Economy. Tr. Martin Nicolaus. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1973, p. 105. See the important discussion in Dipesh Chakrabarty, Provincialising Europe: Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2000, pp. 52-53.
8 Guy Debord, The Society of the Spectacle. Tr. Donaldson Nicholson-Smith. Cambridge, MA: Zone Books, 1995.
9 For a discussion of some of the methodological issues involved in such an approach, see Susan Buck-Morss, “Visual Studies and Global Imagination,” Papers of Surrealism, Issue 2, Summer 2004. My thanks to Jamie Berthe for the reference.
10 As late as 1936, Nehru remarked about the English press in India, that Indians as such were absent in it; even the doings of the nationalist politics would be confined to a few lines in the back page. J.Nehru, An Autobiography. New Delhi: Publications Division, 1980, p. 48.
11 My thanks to Nityanandan Ashwath for his aeronautical expertise in reading this image.
12 S. Muthiah, “A 200 year-old chapter ends,” The Hindu, Nov 12, 2001. http://www.hinduonnet.com/thehindu/mp/2001/11/12/stories/2001111200120300.htm
13 David Arnold, “Industrial Violence in Colonial India,” Comparative Studies in Society and History, Vol. 22, No. 2 (Apr., 1980), p. 251.
14 For a more extensive discussion, see my Politics After Television: Hindu Nationalism and the Reshaping of the Public in India, Cambridge, 2001, and also “Advertising in India: Genealogies of the Consumer-Subject,” in Modern Makeovers: A Handbook of Modernity in South Asia ed. Saurabh Dube and Ishita Banerjee-Dube. New Delhi: Oxford University Press, forthcoming.
15 See footnote 20 below.
16 I am thinking here of the decline of the genre of mythological films over the 1970s and 1980s, and the change in fortunes of this genre with the onset of television and the broadcast of epic serials from 1987 onwards. See Rajagopal, 2001, ibid.
17 See Carl Schmitt, Political Theology: Four Chapters on the Concept of Sovereignty, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006; Claude Lefort, “The Permanence of the Theologico-Political,” in his Democracy and Political Theory, tr. David Macey, Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 1988.
18 See in this connection Bruno Latour, We Have Never Been Modern. Tr. Catherine Porter. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1993.
19 See Kajri Jain, ibid. for a discussion of ‘vernacular capitalism.’

Select Page Previous Next
Visit The Gallery
Tasveer Ghar Home - Gallery - Disclaimer on images - Contact us - UnSubscriber